(AP/Jim Altgens)

When Texas fell to the wingnuts: The secret history of the Southern strategy, modern conservatism and the Lone Star State

On Nov. 22, 1963, John Kennedy knew he was heading to Texas "nut country." Here's how it got so crazy


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Edward H. Miller
November 2, 2015 12:00AM (UTC)
Excerpted from "Nut Country: Right-wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy"

From the vantage point of most Dallas Republicans in early 1963, Barry Goldwater represented the brightest hope for national conservative Republicanism since the death of Robert Taft in 1953. Annoyance with the New Deal, particularly the National Industrial Recovery Act’s wage and price controls, which interfered with the management of his family’s department store, led to Goldwater’s first foray into politics as a member of the Phoenix city council. A successful candidate for the United States Senate in 1952, Goldwater assailed President Truman’s New Deal. Campaigning for reelection in 1958, he attacked “labor bosses” and unions with even more ferocity than in 1952. The Arizona senator’s views echoed those of many North Texas businessmen. Enclosing a thousand-dollar check, Fort Worth oilman W. A. Moncrief wrote to Goldwater that Walter Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers, was “the most powerful and dangerous man in America today.” Seven months later, Goldwater made a similar point. Reuther, he said, was “a more dangerous menace than the sputniks or anything that the Russians might do.”

Goldwater’s 1960 book, Conscience of a Conservative, ghostwritten by Brent Bozell, had a powerful impact on many Dallas Republicans, including Catherine Colgan. “Many of us were very impressed with Barry Goldwater,” she recalled. His “line of thinking” and “personal values” “made a lot of sense to us.” Goldwater’s message and worldview also inspired numerous Democrats, many of whom attended “resignation rallies,” where they renounced their old party affiliation and declared their allegiance to the Republican Party.

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In Texas the “Goldwater phenomenon” originated from Dallas County, where GOP leaders like Peter O’Donnell, John Tower, and Harry and Rita Bass galvanized the drive to elect the Arizona Republican. In 1960 and 1961, Goldwater had stumped in Texas for Tower, whose own book, a Program for Conservatives, while somewhat academic, contained many of the same themes and positions as Goldwater’s book. In July 1963 Harry Bass said, “We’re working now toward the goal of replacing one-term Governor Connally and one-term President Kennedy with well-qualified fiscally responsible men who will be, of course, Republicans.” Bass epitomized the optimism that many Dallas conservatives felt: “With Goldwater heading the ticket, we can expect to elect a Republican senator to Ralph Yarborough’s seat, at least three more congressmen, and thirty-five or forty more representatives in Texas.”

Goldwater’s most fervent champion, however, was O’Donnell, who injected his infectious enthusiasm and trademark organizational mastery into the movement. Moreover, he contributed significantly to Goldwater’s use of the Southern Strategy and his consequent victory in five Deep South states in 1964. As the newly elected Republican state chairman in 1962, O’Donnell publicly encouraged Goldwater to run for president and secured the Texas Republican state committee’s passage of a measure praising Conscience of a Conservative as “an affirmative philosophy and program.” As early as the fall of 1962, Texas was firmly ensconced in the Goldwater camp. So sure was O’Donnell that Texas, as one campaign sign read, was “wild about Barry,” that he left Dallas in February 1963, accepted the position of chairman of the Draft Goldwater Committee, and organized its headquarters on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, DC. O’Donnell was “the natural choice” and “the ideal man,” according to F. Clifton White, the former chairman of the Young Republicans. “I couldn’t see how Barry Goldwater—or any other leading Republican in his right mind—could possibly thumb his nose at Peter O’Donnell.” Rita Bass accepted O’Donnell’s invitation to join him in Washington and became the national canvassing director. With White serving as national director of the committee, O’Donnell and John Grenier began the task of rounding up potential Southern delegates for Goldwater. By the time the committee held its first press conference, O’Donnell and White had already lined up Draft Goldwater chairmen in thirty-three states and had nationwide Republican support from precinct chairmen to national committeewomen.

Part of what made Goldwater so appealing to O’Donnell was his early affinity to the Southern Strategy. In the early 1960s, the national Republican Party stood at a crossroads on racial issues. George Hinnan, Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s advisor, called race the “Great Republican issue,” one that divided the party. He noted that segregationist discourse was on the rise among party leaders, and “Barry has been falling increasingly for it.” Hinnan outlined the reasoning of these new converts: “Their theory is that by becoming more reactionary than even the Southern Democratic Party, the Republican Party can attract Southern conservatives who have been Democrats, and by consolidating them with the conservative strength in the Middle West and Far West, the Republicans can offset the liberalism of the Northeast and finally prevail.” Rockefeller himself bemoaned as “completely incredible” the Southern strategists’ plan of “writing off” the black vote. Hinnan was correct in his perception: Following Nixon’s defeat in 1960, Goldwater told Atlanta Republicans that the GOP, despite receiving 36 percent of the African-American vote that year, is “not going to get the Negro vote . . . so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are.” With that, Goldwater headed South in search of some ducks.

Goldwater empathized with the South because his own philosophy drew on the argument that the Constitution protected property rights and restricted democracy in order to preserve privilege. From John C. Calhoun and other slave-owning politicians of the antebellum Old South to their conservative disciples of the New South, the region emphasized the role of the Constitution in curbing federal power. Goldwater subscribed to Calhoun’s understanding of the Constitution as a restrictive document that protected property rights and sanctified the power of the states over the federal government. “Our right of property,” Goldwater said, “is probably our most sacred right.” Goldwater’s narrow definition of liberty as it applied mainly to property owners allowed him to embrace “freedom” even as he ignored the plight of African-Americans at midcentury and railed against the 1964 Civil Rights Act for ineluctably giving rise to “a federal police force of mammoth proportions.”

It was therefore no accident that, in historian David Farber’s words, “Goldwater played in the South.” His vision of liberty distinctly paralleled that of slave owners who had regarded slaves as their property. Skeptical that every individual would be able to comport himself responsibly, Goldwater consistently supported rich over poor, employer over employee, and white over black. His vision of a restrictive Constitution caused him to attack the existing Supreme Court and champion a return to the antilabor, pro-business, segregationist courts of the Gilded Age. He revered freedom yet attacked the Brown v. Board of Education decision, arguing that it was “not based on law” because it represented a direct violation of Southern traditions of white entitlement and black exclusion. Defending his conception of the protections the Constitution offers against this kind of court interference, Goldwater said, “I am firmly convinced—not only that integrated schools are not required— but that the Constitution does not permit any interference whatsoever by the federal government in the field of education.” From assailing stronger labor laws to rejecting federal aid for education to battling colonial independence movements, he vehemently took on any reform that promoted egalitarian causes or what he perceived as the redistribution of wealth and property from privileged whites to the underprivileged and nonwhites.

During the first press conference for the Draft Goldwater Committee, O’Donnell addressed the media and declared that the national Republican Party ought to pursue an intentional Southern Strategy. Because Goldwater was the only candidate who could successfully execute such a strategy, the Arizona senator ought to be the party’s nominee. “The key to Republican success,” O’Donnell argued, “lies in converting a weakness into a strength and becoming a truly national party.” The phrase “converting a weakness into a strength” meant securing the once solidly Democratic South for a Republican candidate. In his book about Goldwater’s campaign for the presidency, Suite 3505, F. Clifton White cleared up any doubt over what O’Donnell meant by including after that crucial phrase this parenthetical remark: “(the paucity of Republican votes in the South).” At this revealing moment in political history, O’Donnell had based his argument on a striking admission. The Southern Strategy was an intentional maneuver on the part of the party to win elections, and Goldwater, with his ability to appeal to racist sentiments in the South, was seemingly the only candidate who could deliver enough Southern votes to ensure a Republican victory.

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Republican gains in the South in the 1962 midterm elections— achieved largely through Republican opposition to the Department of Urban Affairs—only bolstered O’Donnell’s conviction that Goldwater could win the presidency with appeals to race. William Rusher, publisher for the National Review and a former assistant counsel under Robert Morris, agreed that Republicans could beat Kennedy by selecting a candidate opposed to civil rights. Rusher argued against the immorality of racial politics by observing that Southern Democrats had been making appeals to segregationists for decades. While civil rights activists faced off against intractable segregationists, party-builders like O’Donnell were planning a racial strategy for Goldwater and making Republican institutions throughout the South lily-white. The Republican National Committee had dropped all pretense of appealing to minorities when it disbanded its division for minority outreach and established Operation Dixie, which recruited white Southerners to the party. To be sure, Goldwater’s allure to middle-class Southerners in the burgeoning Sunbelt drew on class appeals as well as race. Rather than appealing to the Ku Klux Klan, Goldwater and the GOP tailored their message for moderate Sunbelt suburbanites, who supported “right to work” labor laws, militantly opposed Communism, and assailed welfare policies.

Attesting to the excitement that greeted Goldwater’s potential candidacy, nine thousand Americans from forty-four states converged on Washington, DC, on July 4, 1963, and filled the Washington Armory for a rally encouraging the senator to jump into the race. It was Peter O’Donnell’s job as the primary organizer and master of ceremonies to pump up the capacity crowd: “We are embarking on a great crusade . . . to put Goldwater in and Kennedy out!” One Washingtonian later declared, “This town’s never seen anything like it.”

Conservative strategists’ increasing optimism and commitment to the Southern Strategy were buoyed by the American public’s growing disenchantment with President Kennedy’s unequivocal defense of civil rights. In June 1963, President Kennedy had addressed the nation on civil rights, called it a “moral issue,” and introduced a substantial civil rights bill to Congress. That summer, his approval rating dove from 70 percent to 55 percent. “Our people are tingling with excitement. I have been receiving long distance calls from all over the nation,” O’Donnell declared. “The South will take the lead in making Kennedy a 1-term president.” “A year ago it was said that Kennedy was unbeatable. But people are not thinking that way now.” With glee, O’Donnell predicted, “if Goldwater can carry the same states that Nixon carried in 1960, and then carry the balance of the Southern States, he will have 320 electoral votes—more than enough to win.”

Goldwater himself was less than cooperative. He expressed little enthusiasm for running against Kennedy and throughout 1963 declined to commit himself to the presidential race. Although he never attempted to defuse the grassroots operation by flatly refusing to run, Goldwater remained unaffiliated with the committee that often met furtively in Suite 3505 in New York’s Chanin Building. It was “their time and money,” he said, although he was reportedly “furious” over the efforts of White and O’Donnell to seek out press coverage.

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“If Goldwater doesn’t want to make up his mind,” O’Donnell said, “we will draft him. And because he might say ‘No,’ we’ll tell him what we’re going to do. Won’t ask his permission to do it!” O’Donnell was well aware that time was of the essence, that the candidate would need to build the campaign’s financial and institutional infrastructure to run competitively against a Kennedy machine that had strong union support. O’Donnell grew increasingly impatient and frustrated with the presumptive candidate’s aloofness, but Goldwater refused to sanction fundraising on his behalf and stonewalled even John Tower, who served as O’Donnell’s primary intermediary with the Arizona senator. “We’re like a wet noodle,” O’Donnell complained. “This thing will surprise people if it ever gets started, but right now it isn’t started.” O’Donnell grew weary of working through Goldwater’s aides, who lionized their boss and, like the senator, showed no sense of urgency about announcing for president. After visiting New Hampshire in December 1963, O’Donnell lamented to a Goldwater staffer that “there are serious weaknesses in organization, finance, public relations and advertising, and in my opinion, we stand a great chance of being clobbered.”

In addition to these organizational problems, O’Donnell saw Goldwater’s extemporaneous speaking style as an issue that might imperil a presidential run. O’Donnell advised Goldwater in a memo to prepare his remarks and avoid “shooting from the hip.” This unsolicited advice only further alienated O’Donnell from the senator’s inner circle. When Goldwater formally announced his intention to run in January 1964, O’Donnell and White were passed over for all senior positions on the Goldwater for President Committee staff. Rejecting John Grenier’s recommendation that O’Donnell be made director of political operations, the campaign offered the job to Lee Edwards, the editor of Young Americans for Freedom’s magazine, New Guard. Goldwater did, however, refer to O’Donnell as the “efficiency expert” during public remarks in June 1964 and thanked him for his efforts, saying, “I wouldn’t be standing here tonight as a possible nominee of our party for president if it weren’t for you.”

Although the Goldwater campaign excluded O’Donnell, it nevertheless followed the strategy that had become his trademark and targeted the South with carefully coded appeals to white supremacy. Like some other conservatives, Goldwater exploited white anxieties in the face of the social change and upheaval fomented by the civil rights movement, which many perceived as a “Second Reconstruction.” In theory, Goldwater lauded liberty, but in reality, he allied himself with agents of racial separation. Martin Luther King accused Goldwater of “[giving] comfort to the most vicious racists and most extreme rightists in America.” Brooklyn Dodger great Jackie Robinson, himself a Republican, remarked that any black person voting for Barry Goldwater “would have a difficult time living among Negroes.” William P. Young of Pennsylvania, a black delegate to the Republican Convention in San Francisco’s Cow Palace, charged that Goldwater’s platform was “attempting to make the party of Lincoln a machine for dispensing discord and racial conflict.”

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There were three components to Goldwater’s version of the Southern Strategy. First, he demonized the Civil Rights Act, which became law in the summer of 1964. Abandoning an earlier attack that claimed the law was unconstitutional, Goldwater now insisted it “dangerously [tread] in the private affairs of men.” His opposition earned swift congratulations from O’Donnell, who called the law “vicious,” argued that it would create “a federal police state,” and declared that “President Johnson has turned his back on Texas to court the liberal extremists and Negro bloc in the North and East.” The second component, the film Choice, was a much more explicit type of appeal. Although Goldwater prohibited screenings of the film, which he himself called “racist,” its production demonstrated that winning the South remained the campaign’s chief preoccupation. The third component was an effort to conflate civil rights and civil disorder. Goldwater’s subtle argument was that “crime in the streets” resulted from disrespect for authority and waning morals, which in turn derived from liberalism’s welfare state. This disregard for authority and social mores crystalized in the civil rights movement’s strategy of civil disobedience. By invoking the phrase “law and order,” then, Goldwater launched a coded attack on civil rights, playing to the fears of many whites and implicitly promising strong retaliatory measures against those who appeared to threaten white people (particularly women).

The Politics of Law and Order

The politics of law and order had been brewing since at least the summer of 1963. In a memo that June, one Goldwater advisor wrote, “The hostility to the new Negro militancy has seemingly spread like wildfire from the South to the entire country.” The president had failed to grasp “the political implications of such a change.” “So long as the “tide of rebellion” continued and Goldwater invoked states’ rights and argued that “private property must remain inviolate,” he had a “serious chance” to beat John Kennedy. The memo suggested that any given category of crime be treated “as a prong of a single fork—a fork labeled ‘moral crisis.’” Goldwater, the memo argued, must jab the fork “relentlessly from now until election day.”

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Goldwater rolled out the discourse of “law and order” in March 1964 in New Hampshire, where he faced a closely contested primary against Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Cabot Lodge. The president, Goldwater declared, ought to “turn on the lights of moral leadership” and the “lights of moral order.” His “light-switch” reference identified morality with lightness, whiteness, and civic order (and, by extension, depravity with darkness and the civil rights struggle), connections he made even more explicit that June in Dallas. There, Goldwater specifically identified as criminal behavior the nonviolent resistance campaigns of the civil rights activists. Before a crowd of eleven thousand at the Dallas Memorial Auditorium, Goldwater declared his allegiance to “the principles that look upon violence in the streets, anywhere in this land, regardless of who does it, as the wrong way to resolve great moral questions—the way that will destroy the liberties of all the people.”

Goldwater employed the language of law and order to appeal to fears of crime and black militancy while simultaneously blaming social ills on liberalism. He often spoke in terms calculated to evoke fears of black-on-white crime and sexuality, as in the statement “Our women are no longer safe in their homes.” In describing Washington, DC, with its high crime rate, as “a place of shame and dishonor,” he called into play public awareness of the city’s sizable African-American population. Goldwater placed the blame for threats to order squarely with the civil rights movement and the Great Society, President Johnson’s set of social and economic reforms. Civil rights, he averred, engendered permissiveness and moral laxity. American liberalism, reaching its crescendo with the Great Society, had banished God from schools and rewarded indolence with social programs. “Government seeks to be parent, teacher, doctor, and even minister,” Goldwater lamented. “Rising crime rates” evidenced the “failure” of the liberal strategy of social change.

This strident, racist rhetoric, which originated with the Right, influenced moderates as well. Even temperate public figures like Dwight D. Eisenhower adopted the rhetoric of “law and order,” as in this remark at the 1964 Republican Convention in San Francisco: “Let us not be guilty of maudlin sympathy for the criminal . . . roaming the streets with switchblade knife.” Roy Wilkins, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons, underlined the racist implications of Eisenhower’s remark in a strongly worded rebuke: “The phrase ‘switchblade knife’ means ‘Negro’ to the average white American.” In his own 1964 convention speech, Goldwater tied together Democratic corruption scandals and “violence in our streets” with his plea that law and order “not become the license of the mob and jungle.” John Tower also courted segregationist voters by appealing to law and order. At the convention, he observed, “We’ve come to the point when people can be mauled and beaten and even killed on the streets of a great city with hundreds of people looking on, and doing nothing about it.” Placing the blame for this lawlessness with liberal policies, he continued, “We have come to the point where, in many cases, the lawbreakers are treated with loving care . . . while those who uphold and champion the rule of law and order are looked upon in some quarters as suspect.”

Rout

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In 1964, the country as a whole was not ready for the brand of conservatism that Barry Goldwater embodied and Dallas County voters embraced. Conservative Republicans would have to wait for “future Novembers,” as William F. Buckley Jr. put it. But the South was ready. Five of the six states Goldwater won were in the Deep South: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. He took Mississippi with 87 percent of the vote. Whereas Eisenhower had won 40 percent of the nationwide black vote in 1956 and Richard Nixon had garnered 36 percent in 1960, Goldwater took a meager 6 percent in 1964. As historian Michael Flamm concluded, neither perceptions of black violence and crime nor reactions to the rapidity of desegregation in the cities of the Northeast and Midwest were yet strong enough to produce the white voter backlash Goldwater would have needed to win in 1964.

The politics of law and order failed to carry the day in 1964 because the discourse was premature. The assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas in November 1963 had revolutionized the political landscape, and both Goldwater and Congressman Bruce Alger were defeated. The assassination cast a long shadow over both campaigns and over Dallas’s identity, reinforcing the city’s reputation as a haven for extremism. An incident in which Adlai Stevenson, the US ambassador to the United Nations, was physically abused by an angry mob of Dallasites on October 26, 1963, recalled the day in 1960 when Lyndon Johnson and his wife were accosted at the Adolphus Hotel. A study by Peter O’Donnell conducted a month before the assassination concluded that “neither Republicans nor Democrats identify Goldwater as part of the radical right.” That was not the case soon after. By demonstrating that extremism was a problem in the body politic, the assassination, although perpetrated by a Marxist, made the identification of Goldwater as a trigger-happy warmonger much more convincing to the public. Some rank-and-file Republicans grew despondent immediately after the tragedy. As Dallas Republican activist Sally McKenzie said, “We all worked our souls out” for Goldwater. “Every bit of that went down the tubes the day that Jack Kennedy was killed in Dallas. I had just finished a door-to-door canvass in my precinct. I went in that night, not that I was being disrespectful of a deceased president, and just tore up the records. It was futile after that.”

Goldwater’s propensity for “shooting from the hip” provided further fodder for those characterizing him as “trigger-happy.” If his promise to grant jurisdiction over tactical nuclear weapons to American commanders in the field did not scare away voters, his assertion that such weapons could be used to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam did. In the final weeks of the campaign Goldwater attempted to remove what O’Donnell called the “atomic thorn in his heel” with more appeals to law and order. But the “trigger-happy bit,” one Dallas conservative Republican noted, hurt Goldwater among American voters. “We had a public relations image hung on us like a dead cat.”

With Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson, a master politician, ascended to the presidency, armed with both a singular understanding of Congress and a mandate to secure his fallen predecessor’s legislative program. While Johnson’s legislative record had been the most liberal in the nation’s history, many Dallasites, Texans, and Americans in the fall of 1964 still regarded the tall Texan as more moderate than his slain predecessor. In a shrewd gesture calculated to garner broad bipartisan support, reinforce his image of steady moderation, and avoid backlash, Johnson identified the 1964 Civil Rights Act as more of a legislative priority for the slain president than for himself. Goldwater, now facing a popular president from Texas instead of an incumbent from Massachusetts, was never fully able to execute the Southern Strategy in 1964. Moreover, the assassination had dampened his enthusiasm for the campaign. Goldwater liked Kennedy personally and had relished the opportunity to run against him. The decision to exclude F. Clifton White and Peter O’Donnell from the campaign also proved unwise. Denison Kitchel, Dean Burch, and Richard Kleindienst—the “Arizona Mafia”— lacked their predecessors’ experience, discretion, and organizational wizardry. In the final analysis, Goldwater’s running mate, William Miller, probably summed up the election results best: “The American people were just not in the mood to assassinate two Presidents in one year.”

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Kennedy’s assassination contributed to the debacle of the Dallas Republican Party in 1964. All eight Dallas Republicans in the Texas legislature were ousted, and Bruce Alger lost his bid for reelection to Congress to Democrat Earle Cabell. To be sure, Cabell was a well-financed candidate, a popular mayor who rode the coattails of a president from Texas. Moreover, Cabell made a strong case against Alger’s effectiveness as a congressman. Ultimately, the revival of Alger’s ultraconservatism—what many regarded as extremism, especially with Goldwater on the ballot—combined with his Dallas constituents’ concern for the city’s shattered image, were the most important factors in his defeat.

Alger had modulated his ultraconservative image following the Adolphus incident, but his flirtation with distancing himself from far-right organizations and ideas did not last long. Alger’s speeches in 1962 and 1963 contained secular apocalyptic overtones. In his self-proclaimed “one-man campaign against John F. Kennedy,” he attacked the administration’s distribution of federal money to the nation’s cities, calling it a “sure step toward the end of free elections.” Aping Senator Joseph McCarthy’s 1950 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, Alger addressed the Petroleum Engineers’ Club of Dallas and declared that he held in his hand fifty-five indictments charging the Kennedy administration with coddling Communists. On other occasions, Alger averred that the president was moving the country “closer to dictatorship” and that “the nation cannot survive another four years of the New Frontier policies.”

This renewed, more militant ultraconservatism, manifested just as Dallas’s image throughout the world was tarnished by the murder of a president, contributed to Alger’s loss in 1964. Murdered by Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald never had his day in court, but Dallas, as A. C. Greene observed, promptly went “on trial.” In the days, weeks, and months after the assassination, newspaper and magazine editors descended upon Dallas to dissect its identity and often drew hasty and simplistic conclusions. The outside appraisals, on the whole, concluded that the city of Dallas was culturally bereft, politically autocratic, and socially bankrupt.

Although President Kennedy’s killer was a Marxist who had lived in Dallas for only two months, many columnists concluded that the city and its right wing had created an environment that contributed to the assassination. An article in Fortune referred to Dallas as the “hate capital of the nation,” “a place so steeped in violence and political extremism that school children would cheer the president’s death.” One newspaper observed, “The hatred preachers got their man. They did not shoot him. They inspired the man who shot him.” Another noted that “Mr. Kennedy had prepared a speech which . . . reminded the people of Dallas that . . . America’s leadership must be guided by the lights of learning and reason. . . . Dallas’s answer, even before that speech was delivered, was to shoot John F. Kennedy.” Along with resurrecting the Adolphus and Stevenson incidents, some journalists concluded that the centralized structure of Dallas’s Citizens Council inhibited discussion, discouraged dissent, and restricted the intellectual and cultural activity essential to a thriving metropolis. Although many city leaders argued that the assassination “could have happened anywhere,” Congressman Alger was the most doctrinaire and hostile in attacking the news media for suggesting that Dallas itself was to blame.

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With the city’s image under siege, the business community divided its support between Cabell and Alger. Alger garnered support from the oilman Jake Hamon, Dresser Industries’ H. N. Mallon, Sun Oil’s Tom Hill, and Lone Star Steel’s E. B. Germany, while Cabell had the solid backing of the downtown Dallas establishment, including Robert L. Thornton (who founded the Citizens Council), the retailer Stanley Marcus, and John M. Stemmons. In the final analysis, enough business leaders came to the following conclusion: since the federal government already meddled in the life of the city—from civil rights to defense appropriations— Dallas might as well benefit and secure federal money to connect the Trinity River to the Gulf of Mexico, construct a downtown Federal Center, and undertake other projects that would move the city forward. Given concerns over the effect of the city’s image on future growth, it made little sense for Dallas leaders to stick with an intractable libertarian ideologue who had come to personify an extremism that frightened the country and appeared to bring out the worst in people.

The assassination also revivified the Democratic Party in Dallas County. Within three months of the tragedy, the North Dallas Democrats, the first local organization working for Democrats on all rungs of the party hierarchy since 1948, was formed. Bill Clark, chairman of the Dallas County Democrats, adopted many of the organizational strategies that Peter O’Donnell had pioneered. Enthusiastic Democratic volunteers went door-to-door and called from numerous phone banks urging Dallasites to vote Democratic, “from the White House to the Court House.” Another important factor in Alger’s defeat was African-American turnout, which reached 85 percent in some precincts. With Lyndon Johnson committed to the cause of civil rights more vigorously than any predecessor (or successor), thirty-two thousand Dallas black voters chose a straight Democratic ticket; the Democratic proportion of victory in some black precincts was 119 to 1.

Indeed, between 1952 and 1964 the flight of African-Americans from the Republican Party amounted to a seismic shift, and the Dallas Republican Party illustrated that trajectory in microcosm. In 1952, 44 percent of African-American voters nationwide supported Dwight Eisenhower for president, and two years later 67 percent of African-American voters in Dallas County supported Bruce Alger for congressman. But in 1964, only 6 percent of African-American voters nationwide supported Barry Goldwater for president, and locally only 2.4 percent supported Alger.

The Dallas Republican Party’s loss of the African-American vote was no fleeting anomaly. Jim Collins, the son of Carr P. Collins and an unsuccessful 1966 GOP congressional candidate from Dallas, performed about as well as Alger had in African-African precincts two years earlier. Despite national Republican chairman Ray Bliss’s optimistic appraisal that Collins’s support among blacks was “sensational,” that it had “exceeded his fondest expectations,” and that it showed that blacks were returning to the Republican Party, the actual results in Dallas were nothing for Republicans to celebrate, rising an infinitesimal 0.8 percent to 3.2 percent. Speaking to a Dallas audience in 1968, Richard G. Hatcher, the newly elected black mayor of Gary, Indiana, said that “the Republican Party has in effect turned its back on the black people of this country.” The GOP simply did not want black votes, he concluded. The Reverend Ralph Abernathy echoed Hatcher, adding that the 1968 Republican platform and the ticket of Richard Nixon and Spiro T. Agnew “are not an inspiration to black voters.”

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Despite Alger’s and Goldwater’s thumping at the polls, they left an important legacy: they had made the case that there was a place for segregationists and states’ rights advocates in the Republican Party. Foreshadowing a bright future for the conservative movement, over a million men and women contributed money to Goldwater’s campaign in 1964, whereas Richard Nixon had received contributions from only forty-four thousand in 1960. After signing the 1964 Civil Rights bill into law, President Lyndon Johnson told an aide, “I think we just gave the South to the Republicans for your lifetime and mine.”96 Yet Johnson’s prognostication was only partially correct. Johnson had given the Deep South another reason to vote against the Democratic Party, but Goldwater gave the region a candidate who was on their side. One Republican from South Carolina expressed the view of many in the region when he observed that although Barry Goldwater was a Westerner, he “could pass for a great Southerner any time, any place.”97 But along with the discovery of a candidate, it took the precedent of Dallas-based, segregationist ultraconservatives like Bruce Alger, John Tower, Jack Cox, Maurice Carlson, and Peter O’Donnell to lay the groundwork for Goldwater’s run in 1964 and to demonstrate that national Republicans could finally “whistle Dixie.”

Excerpted from "Nut Country: Right-wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy" by Edward H. Miller. Published by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright 2015 by the University of Chicago. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.


Edward H. Miller

Edward H. Miller is adjunct professor of history at Northeastern University in Boston.

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